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Is it better for learning to have a few long practices or many short practices?

This is an excerpt from Motor Learning and Development by Pamela Haibach, Greg Reid, and Douglas Collier.

Distribution of Practice

Is it better for learning to have fewer but longer practice sessions or shorter but more sessions? Distribution of practice refers to the amount of practice during each period and the amount of rest between practice sessions in order to ensure optimal learning of motor skills (Magill, 2007). This body of knowledge usually compares schedules of practice called massed and distributed. Massed practice involves longer practice sessions with many practice trials during the time period. This is contrasted to distributed practice, which has fewer practice trials in shorter practice sessions. Massed practice schedules will have fewer practice sessions than distributed practice. When the time between trials is a focus, massed practice will have minimal or short rest periods while distributed practice will have longer rest intervals.

Many educational, recreational, and rehabilitation situations have specified practice times, and practitioners have little flexibility in allotting practice time. For example, teachers know the number of days during the week on which a given class will have physical education, and youth soccer teams are often allotted the practice fields in a predetermined fashion. As Magill (2007) points out, little research addresses the optimal number and length of practice sessions, but in general, researchers recommend more frequent and shorter sessions as would occur in distributed practice. This recommendation is supported by three hypotheses: Massed practice may result in more physical fatigue compared to distributed practice, may reduce cognitive effort compared to distributed practice, and provides less time for the memory representation of the motor skill to be consolidated.

A recent study by Dail and Christina (2004) supports distributed practice for novice golfers. The task was a golf putt, and each participant had 240 trials. A mass practice schedule group performed all the trials on one day, with a short break after each block of 10 trials, while the distributed group had 60 trials on each of four consecutive days. At the end of the 240 trials, 24 hours later, and seven days later, the distributed group putted better than the massed group.

Most of the research on distributed practice has investigated the length of the intertrial interval, that is, the rest time between trials (Magill, 2007). Reviews of this literature point to the importance of the type of task. Continuous skills are learned better with distributed schedules of practice than massed, while the reverse is true with discrete skills. Thus, swimming, dancing, and skiing would benefit from distributed practice, while hitting a golf ball or baseball can be learned effectively under massed practice.

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